Environmental and Social Sustainability in the UN System (ESS)

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24:  U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 69th United Nations General Assembly at United Nations Headquarters on September 24, 2014 in New York City. The annual event brings political leaders from around the globe together to report on issues meet and look for solutions. This year's General Assembly has highlighted the problem of global warming and how countries need to strive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Environmental and Social Sustainability (ESS) is the adaption and integration of precautionary environmental and social principles and considerations into decision making processes. As part of the United Nations’ commitment to support nationally-owned sustainable development results, UN entities across the system are committed to internalizing the principles they stand for – leading by example and maintaining credibility as a partner in sustainable development. A key element of this is enhancing the environmental and social sustainability of the UN’s activities.

The UN Sustainability Strategy 2020-2030

In September 2018, the Senior Officials of the Environment Management Group decided to prepare a UN internal sustainability vision and strategy beyond 2020.

The EMG and Sustainable UN team formed a Task Team to develop a UN Sustainability Strategy towards 2030. In 2019, the Strategy for sustainability management in the United Nations system, 2020–2030 – Phase I: Environmental sustainability in the area of management, proposing a general sustainability vision as well as targets with related indicators for strengthening environmental sustainability in facilities and operations, was endorsed by the CEB.

In 2021, the Strategy for sustainability management in the United Nations system, 2020-2030 – Phase II: Towards leadership in environmental and social sustainability  was endorsed by the EMG Senior Officials, the UN High Level Committee on Programme (HLCP), the UN High Level Committee on Management (HLCM) and the Chief Executives Board.

The Sustainability Strategy II aims to mainstream fundamental environmental and social sustainability principles into every aspect of the UN system, from ensuring that management functions, programmes, and partnerships respect sustainability principles to joint reporting on the sustainability of the UN system.

The UN Sustainability Strategy has already begun producing concrete results in organisations.


The Model Approach to Environmental and Social Standards for UN Programming  serves as a reference and benchmark for UN entities when they adopt or revise their environmental and social standards and safeguards. It outlines a set of key requirements and processes that are typically addressed by UN entity-level safeguard policies, building on lessons learned and the wide range of normative and operational expertise within the UN system. The Model Approach provides a first step in moving towards a common approach to environmental and social standards in the UN, strengthening policy alignment and shared learning. The Model Approach is featured centrally in Sustainability Strategy II.

Sustainability Strategy II builds on the foundations laid by the Framework for Advancing Environmental and Social Sustainability in the UN system (2012), which provided a basic architecture for integrating environmental and social sustainability measures into policies, programmes, and operations of the UN. It is also based on the subsequent Guide for Advancing the Environmental and Social Sustainability Framework in the UN System (2014) which provided an understanding of the minimum requirements and essential actions needed to move towards sustainability in each institution.

A comparative analysis of seven agencies’programme/project level safeguard policies, procedures and accountability mechanisms was carried out in 2017 to help identify a basis for the Model Approach. 

Greening the Blue

In Decision 2019/05 of the UN Secretary-General’s Executive Committee (ExCom) on preparation for the September 2019 Climate Summit, it was decided, inter alia, to “raise the UN’s own ambitions and intensify internal efforts to combat climate change”.

Heads of UN system organisations committed to reach climate neutrality by 2020 through a combination of emission reduction initiatives and purchase of offsets, and adopted the UN Roadmap towards Climate Neutrality by 2020. Such efforts are reported in the annual ‘Greening the Blue Report‘ which is prepared by the Sustainable UN team. The current report, along with previous versions, are available here


The CEB, chaired by the Secretary-General, committed to implement Environmental Management Systems (EMS)in each organization, through a gradual, voluntary and flexible process, focusing on low-investment and high-return initiatives. In addition, they committed to mainstream EMS in programming and planning processes.

At the Rio+20 Conference, Member States requested that the UN improve management of facilities and operations, by taking into account sustainable development practices. (The Future We Want, para. 96).